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Vancouver students battle for bot supremacy

VEX Robotics World Championship set for Louisville, Kentucky next week

Hundreds of hours of practice, a concerted pre-scout of the international competition and a championship final staged in front of thousands in person, if not millions online.  

It’s got all the makings of the Stanley Cup playoffs, but a group of Gladstone secondary students are competing for a championship chalice of a much different sort.

Twenty-two students are bound for Louisville, Ky. next week for the VEX Robotics World Championship, one of the largest global gatherings of tech-savvy students and gearheads alike.

Now in its 10th go-round, the annual event attracts teams from all corners of the world: this year’s numbers include 20,000 students, 1,400 teams and 30 countries. The Gladstone crew is sending three teams to the event, while five others from across B.C. are also making the trek.

“This is an arms race within a totally interconnected world,” said Gladstone Robotics teacher Paul Wallace. “The world championships are a huge event for these kids.”

The competition specs differ each year, and a pre-selected task is chosen for the robots well in advance, allowing contestants to design and refine for months. The 2017 task requires robots to pick up and throw as many objects as far as possible on a playing field that resembles a miniature volleyball court. The tournament’s round robin portion plays out for close to three days before the numbers are pared down to 20 finalists. Last year’s final attracted around 10,000 spectators.

“It’s really overwhelming, but also very interesting,” said Denise Chan, a Grade 12 student competing in her fourth world championship.

To help with those nerves, students pour in hundreds of hours’ worth of leg work and go through close to 10 iterations of a single bot before it’s go time. The 2017 contest task was announced last fall, and from there, the methodical pre-scout began: combing over YouTube for design tips, exchanging ideas via online forums and liaising with other participants from as far off as China and New Zealand.

The end result is three robots from Gladstone that have made it through roughly a half-dozen pre-qualifying tournaments staged across B.C. over the last six months.

The robots are roughly a foot and a half in height and made of aluminum. They’re controlled remotely and each robot is assigned a team of six: drivers, coaches and scouts, who have the specific task of checking out the competition.

“The students meticulously keep a file on all the robots and what they’re doing,” Wallace said.

Gladstone has a long history in the bot game that dates back a decade. About 80 students between Grades 9 and 12 are now involved in studying the hallmarks of robotics: engineering, math, physics and programming. The school laid claim to the whole kit and caboodle in 2012, while Chan’s team nabbed sixth-place last year.

That level of hindsight and experience is what separates Gladstone from the pack in B.C. Alumni now working in the fields of engineering and programming come back almost weekly to help mentor students. It also trickles down the grades, as seniors team up with the juniors on projects.

Grade 9 student Zoe Tsai is one those juniors, and next week will be her first kick at the robot can, along with her team’s robot called 2S.

“Having to sort through all these parts and then figuring out what to do with all this stuff is exciting,” she said. “The fact that you can make a bot move and give it commands makes it really interesting for people to watch.”

Xing Hao Li is Tsai’s wingman on the 2S front. The Grade 11 student took part in last year’s worlds and knows the ins and outs of bot building and battling it out in a packed barn. That said, Li takes a measured approach to goal setting or spit-balling specific targets.

“It’s not about how you place,” Li said. “If you aim for a top 10 for example, you’re going to be pretty upset if you don’t get there. If you go there and try your best and have fun, you can come back and still be happy and proud of yourself.”

The world championships run April 19 to 25.